Shin Sang-ok

Active - 1958 - 2006  |   Born - Oct 11, 1926   |   Died - Apr 11, 2006 in Seoul, Korea  |   Genres - Drama, Action, Romance, Horror

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Shin Sang-Ok has surely had one of the strangest careers of any film director. Hailed as the Orson Welles of South Korea for the modernizing influence his 1960s work had on that country's film industry, he his now best known for having been kidnapped (along with his wife, actress Choi Eun-hee) by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il only to escape to the United States and eventually become producer of the Disney kid flick 3 Ninjas and its sequels. Shin was born in 1926 in the Hamyong province of what is now North Korea. He studied painting at the University of Tokyo and then returned to Korea and began his film career as a production designer on the first movie made in Korea after the Japanese occupation, Choi In-kyu's Via Freedom. He began directing films himself shortly thereafter. His 1958 feature, Flower in Hell, was the first Korean film to feature an onscreen kiss, a mild precursor to the erotic content of his later work. Throughout the '60s, Shin averaged two films a year, many considered classics. He ushered in what is now called the "Golden Age" of Korean cinema by introducing such things as synchronized sound, Cinemascope, and the zoom lens. Often working with his wife (with whom he formed a very successful production company, Shin Films Co., Ltd.), he became known as the Prince of Korean Cinema. Among his most famous movies of the period are the Jean Renoir-influenced My Mother and Her Guest (1961) and the erotic historical-drama The Eunuch, which became the most successful Korean movie of 1968. Shin's career began to flag in the '70s, due in part to new censorship restrictions imposed by the South Korean government. In 1978, both Shin and Choi were kidnapped in Hong Kong by agents of Kim Jong-il, and held separately in North Korea. Imprisoned for nearly five years for trying to escape, Shin was eventually reunited with Choi and the couple was given lavish budgets to make propaganda films for the movie-mad dictator. Of the 17 films Shin directed in North Korea, the most famous (at least among cult cinema fans) is Pulgasari, a bizarre variation on Godzilla. During a state-sponsored visit to a film festival in Vienna in 1986, the couple eluded their minders and sought asylum at the U.S. Embassy. After spending some time as a producer in Hollywood, Shin returned to Korea and briefly resumed his directing career with such films as Mayumi Virgin Terrorist (1990) and the politically-charged Vanished (1994).

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